Fireworks are mostly sold nowadays from brightly colored tents and prefabricated buildings.
Fireworks are mostly sold nowadays from brightly colored tents and prefabricated buildings. Sometimes even air-conditioned warehouses. Most take credit cards. Back in the 1960s, I sold them out a tin-roofed construction — located on the corner of Cayuga and McKay in the Republic of Frontenac — made from two-by-fours, plywood, and chicken-wire held together by bent-over nails.
The two things I remember most about it are: the insufferable heat and humidity; and the barefoot kids hopefully holding up nickels, dimes and pennies to the foot-square hole cut in the chicken wire.
“Whut kin get fo dis?” was the usual question. Then “How much I have weft now?” asked repeatedly until their sweaty coins were spent and they went happily back up the sidewalk, carrying treasures in brown paper bags the color of their little legs — fat-tongued, mixed-breed dogs following dutifully behind.
My earliest memory of pyrotechnics, aka the “bang” of fireworks, though, is of my older brothers shooting off ones they’d purchased at the CYO fireworks stand by Sacred Heart church. Sometimes they’d buy me some snakes, which I found pretty fascinating, I must admit. A couple of years later I graduated to being allowed to light a Ladyfinger on the ground — and run away.
It wasn’t long before I was able to buy my own 1-1/2 inch Black Cats and really have some fun with my friends firing them off in clothes line poles, ant hills, culverts, pop bottles, coffee cans, empty buildings, under piles of catalpa beans — virtually anywhere we could possibly think of that would amplify the sound or blast something apart. Occasionally I tossed one in Pirnot’s chicken yard, which made for chicken mayhem — but could get me in big trouble if caught.
Some days we became rocket scientists as we made tin can rocket launchers by lighting a Black Cat squeezed in a hole augured out of the bottom of a can, which we’d inverted and fitted into an upright can into which we’d poured a couple inches of water. BLAM. We could shoot our rocket-cans 70 or 80 feet in the air!
It was also cool to hold a lighted Black Cat in your hand and toss it at the last minute so it would explode in the air. This would inevitably cause ringing ears and burned and numbed fingers when held too long. Another danger of injury was picking up a firecracker you thought to be a dud but had a very slow burning fuse. Again ringing ears and a feeling like handful of bee stings. If you found a true dud, you could break it in two, light it with a punk, and stomp it to get a loud report, not to mention a little jolt up your leg.
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It wasn’t long before we graduated to pyromania, cherry bombs and M-80s, which were sold under the counter or out of car trunks at many fireworks stands. They were the most dangerous, and, therefore, the most fun. Watertight and waxed, they had waterproof fuses so they could be exploded under water. We would travel to Blue Sea or Whitesnake strip pits where we would imagine we were making a depth charge to blow up a German submarine by packing an M-80 in mud, lighting the fuse, and throwing it in to explode beneath the surface with a flash and a dull thump. Despite warnings to "not blow our fingers off," we’d also light M-80s or cherry bombs and throw them as far as we could before they exploded — challenging one another to see who would hold it the longest before the fuse burned down too far.
Another way we exhibited our general lack of common sense was by having bottle rocket wars in which we’d either hide behind trees and buildings or stand out right out in the open — and shoot bottle rockets at one another. Looking back, it’s a little surprising that none of us lost a finger or eye.
I remember too, taking breaks from shooting fireworks by traveling to the Fox Theatre in Pittsburg where we’d cool off watching movies like “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Or getting dropped off at the “big pool” for an all day swim that left us exhausted and shriveled.
When the night of the 4th finally arrived, our entire street would be veiled in a blue cloud of smoke — mixed with dreamy, cherry-colored light from railroad fusees — as our families, us and the Kabonics next door, lit sparklers, roman candles, pin-wheels, and fountains in front of our bungalows across from the old high school … “oooohhing” and “aaaahhing” aloud beneath the navy blue, star hung sky.
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Counseling Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499.